Brooklyn Nine-Nine was, in fairness, a very good idea. Cop shows are one of the most enduring dramatic engines on television: taking the police procedural and crossing it with the workplace sitcom was, if not inspired, certainly a clever conceit, offering a premise that could easily sustain ninety-nine episodes and then some. Really, it’s no wonder that Brooklyn Nine-Nine is as popular as it is. It’s smart and it’s funny, the cast are fantastic, and it’s reliably charming in a way that makes for perfect comfort-food television. It’s better than a lot of the shows it most clearly resembles, too – better than Parks and Recreation, better than The Good Place – and better than a lot of shows it doesn’t resemble too.
It’s also a lie. In Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the police are sweet and silly and basically harmless; the actual New York Police Department is plainly anything but.
Cop shows are essentially image control for police departments. They always have been: Dragnet, one of the earliest examples of what we understand now as the modern police procedural, was strictly fact checked by the LAPD’s Public Information Division, and many of its contemporaries were written by former policemen. Decades later, with crime dramas spinning off into one franchise after the next, that perspective has calcified and become ubiquitous: the police are always the protagonists. The supposed need for police and policing is always being reinforced, even if individual officers are singled out or structures are criticised – cop shows don’t have, and can’t have, a frame of reference beyond the police. There will never be a meaningful critique of the police within the confines of a cop show, because cop shows fundamentally believe in the need for the police.
Those inclined to defend Brooklyn Nine-Nine would point to those episodes where it engaged more directly with a complicated reality. But that too serves to exculpate the police, whether intentionally or not. Sometimes, Brooklyn Nine-Nine critiques the past, but in doing so it comments on the present, and the implication of progress whitewashes the very real problems that still endure. In contrast, when Brooklyn Nine-Nine has made efforts to address contemporary failings on part of the police, it’s always been in terms of individuals rather than structures, positing that it’s just a case of ‘one bad apple’ rather than anything wider. Its widely-celebrated fourth season episode Moo-Moo is deft and sensitive, but it’s so focused on the actions of one individual it misses the point of the systemic criticism levelled at the police; if anything, Moo-Moo is more of an argument as to why ‘good’ cops might choose to stay silent, portraying them as sympathetic rather than complicit.
In eliding those systemic issues, Brooklyn Nine-Nine sanitises the police. The idea that there are individual good and bad police officers is an unhelpful one, belying the reality that the problem isn’t the individuals at all, but the wider structures and unjust laws they uphold. (Although it’s also worth just digressing briefly to point out that they aren’t even good cops in Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Jake makes arrests on intuition rather than evidence; Rosa is quick to use excessive force; so on, so forth.) Arguably, it’s not a million miles away from sharing staged pictures of police officers kneeling at protests: at best it’s a distraction from the real issues, and at worst it actively encourages complacency and ignorance.
Terry Crews has said that Season 8 of Brooklyn Nine-Nine will touch on recent protests, the cast and crew having had “eye-opening conversations about how to handle this new season”. The idea of an lazily caricatured activist finding a heartwarming compromise with the ‘good cops’ at the 99th Precinct is repugnant, but there’s something about it that seems almost unavoidable – Brooklyn Nine-Nine won’t be able to ignore the protests entirely, nor will they be able to meaningfully critique the police while still holding to their original premise.
Perhaps the show could be salvaged through total reinvention – if, when season 8 started, the characters were all teachers, or journalists, or postal workers, refuting the cop show premise entirely and tacitly admitting to its flaws. Arguably it’d be the strongest textual statement they could make about police brutality, far more meaningful that any ‘very special episode’ could hope to be: such a reinvention would be a genuine acknowledgement that, yes, the narrative Brooklyn Nine-Nine advanced as a goofy show about lovable police was and is a harmful one that need be abandoned.
Short of that? It’s time for the show to end. At this point, it’d be no great loss: it’s nearing its conclusion anyway – the ninth episode of the ninth season no doubt an attractive stopping point – and these are all talented enough performers that they’ll easily find work elsewhere. (Stephanie Beatriz can be the new Batwoman, for one thing.) As it is, though, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is tantamount to propaganda – a slick, well-made comedy that tacitly argues that the solution to police brutality is simply a nicer and more diverse police force. It whitewashes real issues and obscures real solutions, to the point of being actively harmful – so it’s time, surely, to cancel Brooklyn Nine-Nine again.
For more, A World Without Police, by the organisation of the same name, is a useful starting point. Meanwhile, Alex S. Vitale’s The End of Policing is currently available as a free eBook, and Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? can be found here.